Thanksgiving 2016: Okinawa, and Pineapples

The largest vehicle I have ever driven. And I had to do it on the 'wrong' side of the road.

The largest vehicle I have ever driven. And I had to do it on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.

Hello! We are just back from Okinawa, where we went on our FOURTH, count ’em, FOURTH, squad vacation with the Wan-Yau’s of San Francisco (but currently, Singapore). Eva and their son, Jonah, are the same age and met in swimming class when the Wan-Yau’s lived in Seoul in 2015. We first went on an eight-person adventure to the weirdest place ever, Jeju Island, last summer. Since then, we added trips to Osaka, Bangkok and now, Okinawa. We don’t really like to travel without them, now that we are so used to it. And we spent Thanksgiving with them in Seoul last year, so it was fitting to have thanksgiving dinner together again.

Okinawa is a great getaway from Korea for a long weekend. The weather is divine, the people are easygoing, the scenery is always beautiful. For family vacations, the attractions offer just the kind of ridiculousness I enjoy. Like PINEAPPLE PARK, a theme park tribute to pineapples. I cannot describe the LSD-trippiness of it very well except to say that there are “pineapple cars” with a pineapple theme song playing over and over again, and in the pineapple snacks store you can sample every kind of pineapple-made concoction ever made and fill up on the samples, so I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t love that.

Okinawa also boasts of impressive marine life, and one of the world’s best aquariums. So we loaded into our party bus, a Nissan rental van that could seat eight, and I drove the squad about 80 minutes north to see WHALE SHARKS.

Speaking of driving, this was the first time I drove “the British/Japanese way,” on the left side of the road and the right side of the car. Those aren’t the only things that are backwards. The signaling is on the right side of the steering wheel instead of the left, which means every time I wanted to “signal” I was just turning the wipers on and off. This was actually the hardest thing to get used to. By the time I mastered it, it was time to come home.

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Being Pregnant With A Third Baby vs Being Preggo With Your First, A Comparison

Plan your parenthood, people. (Rando photo by Channing Johnson,  back when I was preggo with Eva)

Plan your parenthood, people. (Rando photo by Channing Johnson, back when I was preggo with Eva)

I am almost halfway done with being pregnant with my third daughter, who is due in April. We were a little shocked surprised by this news. Because let’s face it, I didn’t expect to be having a third baby so soon after the second, even though we had wanted another Hu-Stiles at some hypothetical point. That point is now, yikes, so here we are. But being pregnant with your third kid is profoundly different than the first. Some examples:

First Pregnancy: Download an app to track each week of the pregnancy and the changes that come with it, fascinated by developments of the fetus.
Third Pregnancy: Unable to tell anyone how far along you are because well, you honestly aren’t paying much attention.

First Pregnancy: Hyper-aware of any changes in body that might indicate pregnancy symptoms, fascinated by the process of incubating tiny human.
Third Pregnancy: Internal monologue upon feeling queasy is more like “OH DEAR GOD A PREGNANCY SYMPTOM.”

First Pregnancy: Announce news to many friends, get huge “Congratulations! How are you feeling?”
Third Pregnancy: Announce news to a friend, he replies, “Are there no condoms where you live?”

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Happy First Birthday, Isabel Rock!

They say it is my birthday (Cake cake cake cake cake cake)

They say it is my birthday (Cake cake cake cake cake cake). Photo by Just September

While Isa isn’t Korean, she WAS born in Seoul last summer, so we followed Korean tradition and did a doljabi ceremony for her.

Isa selects from a destiny platter.

Isa selects from a destiny platter.

Under the tradition, the one-year old gets a “destiny table” of items to choose from that align with various professions — stethoscope, computer mouse, pencil, money, etc. She went for the microphone without hesitation. But then followed up with her second choice, a gavel.

With her microphone.

With her microphone.

Following American tradition, there was an incident with fire and cake, in which she straight up took her hand and grabbed the flame. Mistakes were made.

Whoops. She recovered after touching fire.

Whoops. She recovered after touching fire.

Isa is my second daughter and as many of you know, she’s a rainbow baby, born after two miscarriages in a row. She’s been a superpower sunshine since she was born — the smiliest, snuggliest and sweetest blessing. We love her goofy tendencies: putting her full face into everything she wants to investigate (like the cats) and sniff them violently like Mary Katherine Gallagher, her ravenous appetite but shockingly slow eating, her growl and her laugh (which is a combined laugh-growl), and her obsession with putting items around her neck — necklaces, purses, headphones. Mostly headphones. We love you, Isa. You truly rock.

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On Living In Asia And A Different Notion of ‘Freedom’

Daughter Eva, on a day when pollution in Seoul measured "hazardous for all groups," not just children and old people.

Daughter Eva, on a day when pollution in Seoul measured “hazardous for all groups,” not just children and old people.

Before I moved to Asia, my notion of freedom largely existed in the realm of figurative freedom, that is, to live in the moment and be free of worry about what was next, or what was buzzing over on my smartphone. How to live freely was notional — a mental freedom, because the other kinds were a given.

A year into this Asian life, my entire construct of freedom has changed. The areas where freedom was default — the freedom to breathe without endangering my health, the freedom to browse the Internet without hitting walls, the freedom to speak and be understood, are no longer a given.

I have come to know the challenge of not having a common language in which to communicate with sources, and just in everyday life. Korea and Japan, my coverage areas, are famously homogenous societies. In Korea, the number of “foreigners” living here is three percent. My Korean interpreter is excellent, but there is a certain captivity when having to speak through someone else’s voice; something I never understood so clearly until living this way for the past year. Would I be able to get that one interview if I were expressing myself properly, or if there were a way to do nuance when speaking through a proxy? Is there just an entire world that could be unlocked to us if we could understand what the hell was going on around us?

It is my job to monitor North Korea, but North Korean sites are more accessible from the firewalled Chinese internet than they are in Seoul, where South Korea blocks North Korean news and information sites under a Cold War-era national security law, a holdover from the time of fear that communist ideology would creep south of the border. Getting on trusted Western news sites in China, meanwhile, makes you long for the dial-up internet speeds of the early 1990s. VPNs can help, but only so long as the Chinese censors don’t kick you off of them just as you’re getting connected.

The environment. Each morning my first phone check is not for the news or my emails but instead, the levels of the harmful, invisible particulate matter, PM2.5, to decide whether I can exercise outdoors, or whether the baby gets to go out on a walk in the afternoon. On many days this year, the levels have been too high for my girls to go outdoors. “The air is bad today” coming out of the mouth of a three-year-old is quietly heartbreaking. The hacking cough sounds of a baby are even worse.

In March, my husband, daughters and my parents stayed for a long weekend in Okinawa after I finished up some reporting there. The six of us were walking to dinner (we had found a Red Lobster in Japan and I’ve never met a chain restaurant I didn’t love). My mom and my older daughter, Eva, disappeared for a few minutes. Later when they caught up with us my mom told me they had come upon a steep grassy hill and young Japanese kids were rolling down the hill. Eva found it puzzling and delightful. She tried to do it, but it took her a few attempts before she could figure it out — the girl had never rolled down a hill before, because she hasn’t grown up around enough grass or hills to do so, nor does she get to play outside that much. I was aghast; I grew up a tomboy in the suburbs, playing in creeks in the summertime and sledding down neighborhood slopes when it snowed.

This kind of existence has made me value small, yet huge, freedoms I never thought about before, and consider them more fully when deciding what to do next. Millions of people in China and India’s megacities have it far worse when it comes to pollution, and millions of children are growing up breathing the same air my children would breathe if I moved to, say, Shanghai, for a couple of years. But, I have a choice; many of their parents do not have the same choice. 99 percent of the time my parenting philosophy is kids are adaptable and flexible; they can easily fold into their families’ lives. But I feel like pollution and lifelong lung capacity falls in the one percent of instances where I should adapt to what they need, first.

Internet hassles and lost in translation moments are sort of the pleasures of a job as a foreign correspondent, challenges that shape you and mold you, over time. I find pollution far more pernicious because its effects may not be known for awhile, if ever. The privileges of my life and work so far mean I’ve never had a “I can’t have it all” moment until now. I think this is it. I want kids who get to go outside and to cover arguably the biggest global story right now. The former has outweighed the latter.

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My Morning Routine Doesn’t Exist

I am continuing my quest to keep up this blog by picking random writing prompts from this list.

This is my morning routine, as of the past few months: Wake up around 6am to the sound of Baby Isabel murmuring and cooing in her crib. She never cries when she wakes up, she just says some stuff like, “Nnnnhn, breh, muhh, arrehh” and occasionally, “Mamamamamamamama.”

She sleeps behind us in a walk-in closet, because we’re space-limited and her sister Eva hasn’t warmed to the idea of letter her sister share a room with her yet. Anyway.

After I let Isa make her noises for a good 10 minutes so that I can slowly wake up, I or Matty go get her, and then I plant her face on my boob for feeding. She gulps down one boob, then switches to the other all while both of us are half asleep. Then I pass her off to Matty, who will burp and return her to her crib for anywhere between 10 minutes to an hour. The reason the timing is not exact is because Isa is consistently awakened later in the morning by her own poop (cause who wants to sleep with poop on their ass) or her sister. Each morning, once the sun is brightly shining, we hear the thud-thud-thud-thud-thud of three-year-old Eva, whose footsteps slow as they approach the master bedroom. She creeps in quietly wearing a mischievous grin, and knowing full well that we’re going to tell her not to wake her sister. (She always ends up somehow waking her sister.)

Then Matty does Eva’s morning get-ready-for-school routine, Isabel gets handed off to our helper, Yani, and I go back to sleep. At least I try. This is only somewhat successful depending on whether Eva decides she only wants me to do her hair before school in the morning, and what I find in my email. If I get some sort of email that wakes my brain, I’m up for the day. If neither a hair nor email incident happens, I sleep until about 9:30am.

It sounds hellish but I keep thinking that someday I will miss this routine.

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Goodbye To My Dog

Saidee, at nearly 17 years old.

November 30, 1998 — September 27, 2015. Pictured here is Saidee at nearly 17 years old.

Update: Saidee left us on Sunday. Eva led her on her leash to a private van, which my assistant arranged for the ride to a compassionate vet, who gave us lots of time to say goodbye. Saidee died in my arms, at nearly half her normal weight after stopped being able to keep any food down. She knew we loved her, but more importantly, she was loving us — licking us — to the very end.

I am sitting here on my bed with my baby cooing at me and my dog in the other room. I am quite certain my dog is about to die.

We lived off Legacy Drive in Plano, Texas 17 years ago, when Saidee joined us as a puppy. My best friend Erin and I drove out to see her in my red Jeep Cherokee after I spotted an ad for beagle puppies in the classifieds. (Like I said, this was a long time ago.) Saidee has an official name — Legacy Lady Saidee, which follows the street name+first name naming custom of her show dog father, Copper Mountain Cody.

Saidee in 1998, when we first brought her home.

Saidee in 1998, when we first brought her home.

At the time I was 16 and applying for colleges as a high school junior. I wanted my dog-loving mom to have a surrogate daughter since I knew I would be moving away. We chose to spell her name “Saidee” because my mom didn’t want the word “sad” anywhere in her name. When she joined us, she was so small she could burrow into my running shoe.

Up until the end, burrowing was a beloved pastime for her. Saidee didn’t bark or bay — odd for a beagle — but she loved to sleep completely under the covers after spending several minutes finding just the right cushion level. She cuddled close to humans, covering them with kisses, spooned with the cats, but was snooty about other dogs. True to her breed, her ultimate favorite activity is eating. Anytime my mom is cooking in the kitchen, Saidee is circling her feet, hoping for a snack to fall from the sky. And that nose of hers could suss out a morsel of food half a mile away. (Which might be why she ran away so many times, always to return somehow.)

She’s my mom’s dog but since we are a family that’s often on the move, Saidee has taken countless flights and road trips and lived with each of us Hu family members at various points in her long life. She joined us when we were all together in Dallas. She lived with Roger when he was at school in Arizona. She lived with Dad in St. Louis when mom’s job pulled her to Taiwan. In 2007, she moved in with Matty and me in Austin, and later, she moved with us to DC.

Saidee checking out the monuments with us in 2011, the year we moved to DC.

Saidee checking out the monuments with us in 2011, the year we moved to DC.

In her 17 years, she’s made many friends, put up with four different cats, survived a battle with skin cancer, briefly got a new identity, seen the American West and the Appalachian Mountains and despite deafness and blindness in her old age, she even managed a final journey with us — across the Pacific, to Seoul.

When I got Saidee, I was only a girl. Now I am a woman with two girls of my own. I always knew that I’d outlive her — and if we were lucky, that all of her Hu humans would — but I kept delaying the thought, since she’s stayed with us so long. But this week, Saidee did something that she’s never done in her life. She stopped eating. Dementia drives her to walk in circles or face a corner without explanation. I know it’s not long now.

I’ll never be able to repay Saidee for her friendship and her love. Thank you, Saidee Hu, for your insatiable hunger, for food, and for life. For teaching me about loyalty, about growing up, and growing older. For bringing us such joy.

The writer Zadie Smith, reflecting on joy, offered as an example the bonds between humans and our animals. She wrote that relationships with animals are intensified because of their guaranteed finitude.

“You hope to leave this world before your child. You are quite certain your dog will leave before you do. Joy is such a human madness,” she wrote.

September 2012, when Eva was born.

September 2012, when Eva was born.

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Can’t stop, won’t stop grooving

Eva at three.

Eva at three.

Happy 3rd Birthday to my pretty young thing, the baby who blasted into the world and made me a momma.

In the year since her last birthday, Eva has had to leave the only home she knew and move to the other side of the planet, start at three different schools, adapt to a foreign country, say goodbye to her nanny and become a big sister. She’s done it all with joy and pluck, and the giant smile that melts me every time.

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That Time We Had A Baby In South Korea

Early Thursday morning, I awoke suspecting something was … off. It was exactly a week before Hu-Stiles #2: Electric Boogaloo’s due date, and my inability to go back to sleep indicated maybe I was in labor. When actual contractions came on around 4am (just like with Eva), I called my mom, who wasn’t supposed to arrive from Taipei until Saturday, and told her I wanted her to get on a plane ASAP. Spouse Stiles started his husband-coaching and labor was ON, man. Contractions were getting moderate, but nothing I couldn’t handle while also getting Eva ready for school.

By about 8am, things were getting uncomfortable, and my Korean birthing center’s midwife wanted us to go ahead and go in because second babies tend to come faster (Teaser: This was NOT the case for me). We dropped Eva off at school along with my Dad, who is town for babysitting help, so he could take charge of picking her up later.

Now that we are home as a family of four, I can blog about the experience!

A Birth in Korea: Stray Observations

We chose Mediflower, a natural birthing center in Seoul’s Gangnam district, because I like things as un-medicalized as possible and Eva was born without any pain interventions to great results for mom/baby, so we wanted a repeat experience, if possible. Medical interventions during labor & delivery actually tend to be high in South Korea, which has a higher C-section rate than the U.S., even. So we really had to find a place that wasn’t going to take the control of the birth out of my hands.

That said, the experience wasn’t completely Western.

Take off your shoes. The center makes you take off your shoes, like any Korean home, upon entrance. They offer a wide array of slippers at the center entrance but each labor and delivery room had a slipper rack, too.

The slipper rack in our labor and delivery room.

The slipper rack in our labor and delivery room.

There’s an obsessive focus on meal time and meals. (This is not a complaint.) My midwife Suyeon, or “Su,” checked us in and immediately presented us a menu for lunch, even though I was already six centimeters dilated. If you’ve given birth in an American hospital, that is not a point they let you chow down, if they let you eat at all. You can choose Western style meals or the Korean meals, which feature lots of banchan and some sort of main soup, stew or noodle dish. My spouse Stiles chose Korean. I went with a cheeseburger, which I had to eat between contractions and just after laboring in the tub for awhile.

Lunchtime during labor! Cheeseburger between contractions.

Lunchtime during labor! Cheeseburger between contractions.

Koreans believe Miyeokguk is the elixir of life. At the hospital/birthing center, Miyeokguk is available at every meal. It is seaweed soup, and Korean moms who abide by the traditional “confinement month” or “sitting month” after having a baby basically have to eat this every day, nonstop, to help in recovery and to get milk flowing for baby. Seaweed is an alkaline food which helps with pH balance and it’s full of iodine, which the Koreans say you need for getting your lady parts healed. I like it well enough, but I can see how you could easily get sick of it.

As in any part of the world, labor and delivery is not a walk in the park. I just had to accept that this was going to be a long day, and that contractions get more painful and intense and the breaks in between them get shorter until you face the daunting part of pushing out a small human. At one point between contractions I tried bouncing on the ol’ ab ball and this started an impromptu singing of R. Kelly’s “Ignition Remix” (key part includes ‘Bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce’). This was fun until it got a contraction going again. I knew Matty was being especially forgiving while I was in labor because he usually doesn’t ever let me sing in front of him, ESPECIALLY not Ignition Remix.

The shorter rope can be lowered to your preference.

The shorter rope can be lowered to your preference.

The tub and rope setup was pretty handy. Every two rooms share a water birthing tub with these 50 Shades of Gray-looking ropes to hang onto. You can dim the lights and work your way through the contractions, or even deliver in the tub. I just used the tub to get through contractions and got in and out of it a few times during labor day. It felt nice but I wanted to move around too much to stay in there for baby.

My mom made it before the typhoon. Mom wasn’t scheduled to arrive until Saturday, but I didn’t think I could go through with the pain of delivering a baby naturally without my mom being with me for the birth. She got on one of the only flights from Taipei to Seoul left (and among the last before they started canceling them in anticipation of Typhoon Chanhom), and made it to the birthing center with TWENTY MINUTES to spare. I was pushing, despairing and at the ultimate nadir of the labor process by the time she got there. It’s pretty amazing that the baby took her sweet time and didn’t make her appearance until her Oma (grandma) was by my side.

After the hospital staff encouraged me to eat dinner (BECAUSE OF COURSE THEY DID), Isabel arrived at 7:12pm Thursday night at a healthy 8lbs, 4oz and 21 inches long. I shared a quick pic on social media, returned some emails and then went to bed for the night. Mom roomed-in with us so she did the overnight rocking and diaper changing when Isa fussed and I nursed the baby a few times while half-asleep.

Isabel made it! This is before she was even wiped off, so uh, sorry she looks kinda gross.

Isabel made it! This is before she was even wiped off, so uh, sorry she looks kinda gross.

The next morning I awoke to a living nightmare that was also hilarious. Remember how the water birthing tub is shared between two rooms? A laboring mom checked in next door while we were sleeping. I awoke Friday to the sound of what I thought was a slaughterhouse, but really, it was just the final moments of a water birth. Seriously, it was like the cows in Fast Food Nation. Mom and I started cracking up just hearing this ordeal because we really thought this woman was not going to survive, much less deliver a baby. I was flooded with memories of delivering Isa the night before and I shuddered at the thought. After a few really awkward and terrifying moments only HEARING what was behind door #2, we heard a baby crying. She did it!*

The lactation consultant was so pro that she seemed like a North Korean Olympics Coach. Before checking out, Isa got her first bath and I got a lactation consultation from an elite North Korean soldier. I mean, a South Korean lactation specialist. She was a bigger-framed lady, tough and stern and scary with her style. She could only coach me through a translator so we went through this elaborate dance of her jerking me around on the bed and squeezing my boobs and contorting the baby’s mouth and jaw to show me the ultimate positions for breast feeding. I was so bewildered that I’m not sure I got much out of it. But baby seems to be eating enough, so far. Her older sister loves her.

Eva and Isa's first photo together.

Eva and Isa’s first photo together.

Isa got two birth certificates, one in each language. Next week she must go to the U.S. Embassy to declare herself as a U.S. citizen born abroad and to get her passport. The photo will be good for five years, which is going to be pretty funny.

*My mom later tried to tell me, in the nicest way possible, that if I thought the woman-next-door sounded bleak, that I sounded way scarier while delivering Isabel. I hope that’s not true…

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Roger Gifs, Day 3: Jubilation On The Water

I’m not really sure what’s going on here. But it’s probably not the only one I am going to share from Roger’s stand-up rafting on some piranha pond.

Roger on some sort of standup raft in a pond.

Roger on some sort of standup raft in a pond.

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Roger Gifs, Day 2: Roger Wears Suits On Long Flights

For the latest in my series poking fun at my little brother (but also not-so-secretly being jealous at his lifestyle), I chose a clip of Roger flying to Indonesia with a camera crew in tow. He seems to lounge and sleep with his bespoke suit on. This seems crazy to us lay people, but it’s become a joke in our family that every time we pick up Roger at the airport, even if it’s a flight from Beijing to Washington, he comes off the plane in a suit.

Those noodles look good, actually.

Those noodles look good, actually.

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